Recording Diary – String Theory Sessions – page 6

There are three phases to recording: tracking, mixing and mastering. Tracking is the actual recording of the songs including the basic tracks and overdubs. In tracking the goal is to get the best takes possible of all the parts. Getting everything right in tracking makes the mixing process easier. Mixing is the truly creative part of recording, when the songs really come together. It is like taking all of the ingredients of a recipe and combining them in the right combinations and quantities to make a delicious dish. Too much of one ingredient or not enough of another can change the flavor drastically. It is more than just adjusting the volume levels for each instrument, however; effects can be added, instruments are ‘placed’ in the mix and parts can be enhanced. Mixing can make or break a recording.

We have spent many hours listening to the rough mixes after each recording session, but in the mixing sessions the listening gets more intense. We’ve brought in CDs for Steve to use as reference; a certain guitar or violin sound that we like, or a musical style to get ideas for a mix. Steve has a remarkable ability to listen to a song, pick out an instrument and hear exactly what type of effect is used and where it is placed. Placing an instrument in the mix is not simply panning it left, right or center. You can put it a little off-center or hard to one side. It can be placed right in front or further back using varying amounts of reverb. It’s like re-creating the sound of a live band, with the sound sources coming from different places.

The first song we mixed was “Josie”. Steve began by setting the drums, and he’ll use this drum mix as a template for the other songs. Next is bass, rhythm guitar and electric violin, setting EQ and adding reverb and other effects individually. After getting the desired sound on each instrument we began the mix by playing the song and listening for volume levels. During the mixing process, each part is ‘written’ into the computer. As we roll through the song we stop when we hear something that needs to be boosted or is too hot and should be pulled back. Watching Steve mix is just like watching a musician, finessing the board as if he’s playing an instrument. If a bass fill is too soft he’ll push it up to emphasize it, or he’ll ride the fader during a violin solo to bring out all the nuances of the performance. Steve also talks to the computer, thanking it for responding to his commands, or scolding it when it doesn’t listen to him! We also sort through Christian’s percussion overdubs, deciding what to use and what to lose. He purposely gave us more than we need so that we would have lots of options.

Once we get a mix written we listen to the entire song after having been listening to it in pieces for the past hour or so. If one of us hears something that should be addressed, we’ll go back and fix that part. Occasionally we’ll listen back with it at a low volume, which actually gives a really nice sense of the whole; you can really hear if some part gets lost or if something is jumping out. After a couple of hours we decide to take a little break and give our ears a rest. When you listen to one song for that long it’s easy to lose perspective. Either it all begins to sound great or it all sounds awful and you realize you just need to get away from it for a few minutes. Most tunes take from 2 to 4 hours to mix, but some take longer. Due to all of the percussion, three bass tracks and two guitar tracks, “Pasion de la Luna” took an entire seven hour session, plus a re-mix at the next session. We take home a CD of each day’s work to be sure it sounds good not only at the studio but on our home stereo, in the car, on a boom box, etc.

We began mixing on May 26 and finished on August 8-Tom’s 42nd birthday. Most people may not realize how important mixing is, so this will give you an idea. Our total studio time for recording: 55 hours; total mixing time: 57 hours! Now we’ll spend a couple of weeks listening to everything to make sure it sounds perfect, then on to the next phase: mastering.

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